Scotland to get new leader after battle for soul of independence camp

New Scottish National Party leader and First Minister to be revealed on Monday

Ash Regan, Humza Yousaf and Kate Forbes are in the running to lead the Scottish National Party. PA
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Scotland will learn the identity of its new leader on Monday after a bruising contest that exposed cracks in the movement for independence.

Humza Yousaf, Kate Forbes and Ash Regan are the three candidates running to lead the Scottish National Party and become First Minister of Scotland.

Whoever wins will be campaigner-in-chief for independence and a sparring partner of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak as London refuses to allow a new referendum.

When The National joined candidates on the campaign trail, they acknowledged there was currently no clear majority for a breakaway.

They clashed on how to get there during the race to succeed Nicola Sturgeon, which has been marred by mud-slinging and chaos surrounding the ballot.

“There’s no getting away from the fact that it’s been a challenging selection contest,” Mr Yousaf said.

However, he denied that the new leader would be taking on a “poisoned chalice”.

Senior SNP figures, including Ms Sturgeon’s husband Peter Murrell, resigned during the contest after a slump in membership numbers was concealed from the media.

Ms Regan suggested members should be allowed to “edit” their ballots amid mutterings about the integrity of the contest.

Scottish leadership race - in pictures

Amid the chaos, some polls have shown the independence camp polling below 40 per cent, a rare low.

Unionists say the obsession with independence has led to problems such as health and poverty being overlooked during 16 years of SNP rule. Scotland's electorate voted to remain in the UK in a first referendum in 2014.

“Support for independence and support for the SNP have tailed off, that is absolutely true,” said Mark Diffley, a pollster in Edinburgh.

“It’s a bit early to be absolutely sure about whether this is a dip or something longer-lasting. A lot of that will depend on who’s elected, what their platform is, how well they can hit the ground running.”

Humza Yousaf, Health Secretary, 37

Mr Yousaf is running to be the first Muslim and ethnic minority First Minister of Scotland.

His plan is to stick to Ms Sturgeon’s left-leaning platform and make a progressive, independent Scotland such a popular idea that London cannot resist the tide.

“What we have to do, because people don’t get inspired by talk of process, is talk about the vision of independence,” he said at the final debate.

The only published poll of SNP members put Mr Yousaf ahead with 31 per cent of the vote — although almost a third answered “don’t know”.

Chris Hopkins of Savanta, the polling company that carried out the survey, said it was far from a guarantee that Mr Yousaf would win.

“Humza perhaps is the favourite because he has some very high-profile endorsements,” Mr Hopkins said. But “the assumption that he’s going to walk to victory, his coronation, is perhaps a little bit misguided”.

Rival camps have painted Mr Yousaf as a continuity candidate and the party machine’s man.

Ms Sturgeon has not taken sides but one close ally, Mhairi Hunter, said she was supporting Mr Yousaf to stop the party drifting right.

Mr Yousaf has promised to “reach across the divisions” in the party if he is elected leader.

Kate Forbes, Finance Secretary, 31

Ms Forbes’s campaign had a nightmare start.

Her expressions of conservative Christian views, in particular on same-sex marriage, led to some backers withdrawing their support.

She says she was merely being honest and has complained of relentless scrutiny of her faith.

Despite the false start, Ms Forbes is regarded as Mr Yousaf’s main challenger and some polling suggests she is the most popular candidate among Scots at large.

Like Mr Yousaf, Ms Forbes wants to build a majority for independence that London cannot ignore, but she puts more emphasis on reaching out to the unconverted.

“There’s no path to independence without persuading No voters to vote Yes,” she said.

In hustings Ms Forbes has clashed with Mr Yousaf over his proposals for higher taxes and his support for a transgender rights. Leftists have called her a "Tartan Tory".

She also wants powers over immigration and the constitution devolved to Scotland if the SNP emerges as kingmaker at the next UK election.

Mr Diffley said the SNP had always had a right-leaning wing despite its progressive image during the Sturgeon years.

“It was being held together by uniting around a single issue, that of independence, rather than aligning on a whole host of social and economic policies,” he said.

Ash Regan, former justice minister, 49

Ms Regan is seen widely as the outsider in the race.

She resigned from the Scottish Government last year in opposition to Ms Sturgeon's transgender rights bill, which London vetoed.

Ms Regan says she is “not as media-trained as my fellow candidates” — at one point during the final debate she asked for more time to think of an answer.

Her argument is that the SNP has “lost its way” and should step up pressure for independence by treating election victories as a mandate for a breakaway.

Another pledge is to form an independence commission to lay the groundwork for a separate Scotland.

“I don’t agree with my two colleagues that if we just get a sustained majority, automatically Westminster will just give us a referendum,” Ms Regan said.

Ms Regan’s outreach to other pro-independence parties has raised eyebrows in the SNP.

She acknowledges having contact with Alex Salmond, the former first minister who left the SNP and formed a separate party called Alba.

Mr Yousaf said candidates should come clean about who was backing them.

“We shouldn’t be entertaining the interjections of a rival political party that spends most of its time attacking the SNP,” he said.

Updated: March 24, 2023, 4:22 PM